|Picture Attribution: George Arnald (1766–1841), Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Aboukir.jpg
A Poem tells a Sad Story
Casabianca is a poem by the English poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, first published in The Monthly Magazine, Vol 2, August 1826. The poem starts:
‘The boy stood on the burning deck Whence all, but he had fled;
The flame that lit the Battle’s wreck Shone round him o’er the dead.’
There’s a sad story behind the poem. The story comes from an extraordinary incident of devotion and heroism witnessed during the Battle of the Nile.
The Battle of the Nile
The Battle of the Nile was a major naval battle between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic at Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast, off the Nile Delta of Egypt. The Battle (from 1st to 3rd August 1798) was the climax of a naval campaign that had raged across the Mediterranean during the previous three months, as a large French convoy sailed from Toulon to Alexandria carrying an expeditionary force under General Napoleon Bonaparte. The British fleet was led in the Battle by Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson; the British fleet decisively defeated the French under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers.
Bonaparte sought to invade Egypt as the first step in a campaign against British India as part of a wider effort to drive Britain out of the French Revolutionary Wars. As Bonaparte’s fleet crossed the Mediterranean, it was pursued by a British force under Nelson who had been sent from the British fleet in the Tagus to learn the purpose of the French expedition and to defeat it. He chased the French for more than two months, on several occasions missing them only by a matter of hours.
Bonaparte was aware of Nelson’s pursuit and enforced absolute secrecy about his destination. He was able to capture Malta and then land in Egypt without interception by the British naval forces.
With the French army ashore, the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, 20 miles northeast of Alexandria, Egypt. Commander Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had established a formidable defensive position. He was wrong.
The British fleet arrived off Egypt on 1st August 1798 and discovered Brueys’s dispositions, and Nelson ordered an immediate attack. His ships advanced on the French line and split into two divisions as they approached. One cut across the head of the line and passed between the anchored French and the shore, while the other engaged the seaward side of the French fleet. Trapped in a crossfire, the leading French warships were battered into surrender during a fierce three-hour battle, while the centre succeeded in repelling the initial British attack. As British reinforcements arrived, the centre came under renewed assault and two hours before midnight, the French flagship L’Orient exploded.
The rear division of the French fleet attempted to break out of the bay, with Brueys dead and his vanguard and centre defeated, but only two ships of the line and two frigates escaped from a total of 17 ships engaged. The Battle reversed the strategic situation between the two nations’ forces in the Mediterranean and entrenched the Royal Navy in the dominant position it retained for the rest of the war.
The Commander’s Son: Casabianca
On 1st August 1798, the English naval squadron under Lord Nelson sailed into the Battle, catching the French fleet at anchor and completely unprepared. The French flagship was the L’Orient, and it soon found itself flanked by English ships attacking it from both sides. A fierce battle was soon raging, and the flashes of 2000 guns lit up the ships in the gathering darkness. L’Orient was caught by the English broadsides and was set ablaze.
It was then that the English sailors saw an amazing sight. There on that burning deck, they saw a boy standing alone. His name was Giocante Casabianca Joseph, the 12-year-old son of Luce Julien Joseph, the commander of L’Orient. There Casabianca stood, alone at his post. He was surrounded by flames and facing the astonished English foe. Soon afterwards, the fire reached the powder magazine deep down in the hold. The boy perished when L’Orient erupted in a massive explosion, the sound of which was heard at Rosetta, which was 20 miles away. And the glow of the fireball was seen as far away as Alexandria. It was an enormous explosion of a magnitude rarely seen back in those times.
The English sailors stood in awe at what they had just witnessed. For some twenty minutes, the guns were silent. The English officers and men were absolutely horrified at the carnage that had taken place. They sent a ship to rescue the survivors from the water. About 70 French sailors were saved.
The account of that boy who stood on that burning deck was told and retold. Eventually, it passed into legend. The story remains a classic example of devotion and faithful service. And the poem continues to serve as a source of inspiration and wonder for many throughout time and across many nations. That boy who stayed at his post on that burning deck has not been forgotten.
And the story of his heroic stand is remembered right up to the present day, in a poem. Generations of schoolchildren learned the original poem by heart but may have preferred the numerous parodies it inspired. It starts with the famous line, “the boy stood on the burning deck”.
Casabianca, the Poem: Author: Mrs Felicia Dorothea Hemans
(Poem © Out of copyright)
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all, but he had fled;
The flame that lit the Battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.
The flames roll’d on… he would not go
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He call’d aloud… “Say, father, say
If yet my task is done!”
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.
“Speak, father!” once again he cried
“If I may yet be gone!”
And [As’] but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames roll’d on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair;
And shouted but one more aloud,
“My father, must I stay?”
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud
The wreathing fires made way,
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And stream’d above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder sound…
The boy-oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea.
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part;
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.
Casabianca, a Parody (probably the one I learned in school)
‘The boy stood on the burning deck,
His feet were covered in blisters.
He had no trousers of his own,
And so he wore his sister’s.’
The Poem’s Message
The poem Casabianca is an ode to the spirit and unflinching moral fortitude of a young boy named Casabianca. Faced with the worst odds and obstacles, he fights bravely to his death, not failing his father nor forgetting what he must do despite the fate that surely awaits him.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the Poet
Felicia Dorothea Hemans (25th September 1793 – 16th May 1835) was an English poet (who identified as Welsh by adoption). Two of her opening lines, “The boy stood on the burning deck” and “The stately homes of England”, have acquired classic status.
Born in Liverpool, England, Felicia was the fifth of seven children. The family relocated to Wales following a period of financial difficulty in 1800. A voracious and early reader, Felicia used an extensive home library and was instructed by her mother in several languages. She spent two winters in London as a child and was captivated by the classical art she saw there. Felicia’s parents were George Browne, who worked for his father-in-law’s wine importing business and succeeded him as Tuscan and imperial consul in Liverpool, and Felicity, daughter of Benedict Paul Wagner (1718–1806), wine importer at 9 Wolstenholme Square, Liverpool and Venetian consul for that city. Felicia’s sister Harriett collaborated musically with Hemans and later edited her complete works (7 vols. with memoir, 1839). Felicia was a prolific poet who received criticism and praise in almost equal measures – female poets in the early 19th century were rare and not, generally, well regarded.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, by an unknown artist.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Unknown_woman%2C_formerly_known_as_Felicia_Dorothea_Hemans_from_NPG.jpg
National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1812, Felicia married Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer some years older than herself. During their first six years of marriage, Hemans gave birth to five sons, and then the couple separated. Marriage had not, however, prevented her from continuing her literary career, with several volumes of poetry being published by the respected firm of John Murray in the period after 1816, beginning with The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) and Modern Greece (1817).
First published in August 1826, the poem Casabianca (also known as The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck) by Hemans was very popular from the 1850s on and was memorised in elementary schools for literary practice. Other poetic figures such as Elizabeth Bishop and Samuel Butler allude to the poem in their own works. Hemans’ poem The Homes of England (1827) is the origin of the phrase “stately home”, referring to an English country house. 
Sources/Excerpts and Further Reading